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Charles Schwab Laments Image of Advisors as 'Used-Car Salesmen'

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Charles R. Schwab, 81, is a successful businessman and golfer. And the founder of the company that bears his names didn’t mince his words about the advisory business or the Ryder Cup golf event during his talk at the annual Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association conference on Tuesday in Washington.

Speaking of the Ryder Cup, which he attended recently in France, Schwab said, “It’s a deep, rough course.”

The climate for advisors and others in the brokerage business today is similar, he suggested. “The general public still thinks we’re a bunch of used-car salesmen,” he said, adding that he harbors no ill will for those hawking autos.

How can the industry turn this image around? Schwab, who started the company he chairs in 1971 in San Francisco, points to the need to help investors retire securely and to embrace a clear fiduciary objective.

“As for the advice portion of the business, I worry about it … We have a responsibility for people’s savings. That’s all important. People … can easily be led down the wrong path,” he said.

“I worry a lot about what being a fiduciary really means — effectively giving direction for those with hard-earned savings? What is good advice?” the veteran businessman and philanthropist asked.

“There is lots of advice, and the industry needs to grapple with this. We still don’t have much confidence [with]in the general public,” he said.

Schwab, who would like to see financial regulation streamlined rather than having industry participants work with multiple regulators, believes a clear definition of fiduciary would help.

Though the company he started and the broader industry have benefited from “thoroughly efficient regulatory oversight, there is a lot of room for changes,” he says. For instance, the industry could separate rules for brokers from those for dealers. “Brokers deal with the customer … at the retail level,” he explained, adding that he doesn’t see this proposal moving ahead anytime soon.

“The bigger issue, which the SEC is dealing with, is the fiduciary standard — which is front, right and center for us,” the chairman said. “People are desperate for solid, truthful, ethical and positive” advice and results.

This nationwide need, which he likened to a crisis, is tied to the fact that “millions of investors have individual accounts and 401(k) plans,” he added. “We have put on the individual a huge responsibility to take care of themselves from age 65 to 90.”

Since pension plans are largely disappearing, workers may need to stay on the job longer, until 70, to build up their savings, he suggests. Many “have not planned properly and have kids in debt. Our industry has to grapple with that,” too.

Tapped by President George W. Bush to lead the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy in 2008, the entrepreneur is keen to expand education around money in the United States:  “It’s a disaster to see the amount of financial illiteracy, the minimal [concepts] that people do not know. There is a big, massive void that has to be dealt with.”


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